Anyone who knows anything about Alexander the Great knows that the man was a military genius. He trained vigorously for war from the age of seven, or eight, and when he ascended to the throne of Macedonia, he conquered most of his known world in an unprecedented winning streak of victorious battles. He expanded around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, stopping when he reached Egypt. Then, he marched his army further east, conquering the Persian Empire, and other peoples, all the way to modern Pakistan, where the threat of mutiny ground Alexander’s conquests to a halt. Though his conquests are what Alexander remains best known for today, he had another passion—literature.
As a Macedonian nobleman, Alexander had great exposure to a diversity of cultures and languages. The Macedonian kings often brought some of the greatest Greek artists and writers of the day to the Macedonian court. The polygamous nature of the Macedonian kings, and the many slaves that the royal court kept, also contributed to the multitude of languages and artistic ideas circulating in Macedonia. Besides knowing the ancient Greek language, Alexander grew up with the dialect of ancient Macedonia and was exposed to the speech of Epirus by way of his mother, as well as the Persian language from emissaries living as guests in his father’s court. Language, however, was not all he was exposed to in his youth. Alexander also had access to Greek literature, poetry and mythology.
Alexander began his training in literature much earlier than his training for war. He read a wide variety of writings: Plays of tragedy and comedy, and tomes of history, philosophy and poetry all filled Alexander’s curriculum. Poetry, especially about the gods, deeply interested the young noble. He memorized many of the works he read, including the poems of Pindar, Euripides, and especially Homer. Many of the early sources that wrote abut Alexander the Great mention that if a line from an epic poem was stated, the conqueror could finish the line, and relate which poem the quote came from. He could quote epic poems like the Christian saints of old could quote the Bible.
The writings that Alexander read did not only interest him, they helped to shape and reinforce the competitive nature that would drive the young king to greatness. The Macedonian kings believed that their line could be traced back to Achilles, and even further back, to Zeus. As such, when Alexander read stories such as the Iliad, to him he was not just reading literature—he saw such stories as histories of his ancestors. For the rest of his life, Alexander the Great would judge his own accomplishments by comparing himself to the heroes of myth. His competition with the larger-than-life figures of mythology, some may argue, may have been another battle that Alexander the Great won, among his many accomplishments.
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Plutarch’s Life of Alexander in The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives by Plutarch, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. London: Penguin Classics, 1973, 2011.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life, by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.